Love in Action (4) — Don’t Be Afraid

This morning, we want to pick back up in our series on “Love in Action”. Because love is not just something we can talk about. It’s something we actually have to put into practice. As the apostle John wrote, “Dear children, let’s not merely say that we love each other; let us show the truth by our actions.” (I John 3:18, NLT).

Our key thought the first week was, “In order to love people, we need to be with them.” We need to take time to spend with people if we intend to love them.

And then, the second week, we saw that God’s love has shown an immense patience toward all of us, and so our love for others needs to demonstrate an immense patience as well.

The third week, we talked about the extravagance of love, and we saw that love doesn’t just do the bare minimum of what needs to be done. Love takes great joy in finding bigger and better ways to express itself.

This morning, I want us to take a look at the relationship between love and fear. In I John 4:18, the apostle John wrote, “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear.”

I heard recently about a woman who was getting married, and she had a good friend who wanted to send her a message wishing the happy couple well. She thought I John 4:18 would be an appropriate verse to send, “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear.” But instead of writing out the whole verse, she figured she’d just send I John 4:18, and let her friend look up the verse for herself.

Unfortunately, when she sent the text, she failed to put the “1” in front of John, so instead of sending I John 4:18, she accidentally sent John 4:18. When her friend looked up the verse, she found that it said, “You have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband.”

So, please make sure you write down in your notes that we’re looking at I John 4:18, “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear.” Now, I think the context of that verse shows that John was talking primarily about being afraid to face God in the Day of Judgment, and the only way to get rid of that fear is to fill our lives with the love of God.

But, I do think that there’s more to this relationship between love and fear, because if we love, if we truly love the way God wants us to love, then we will not be afraid. And very often, I think that fear is what keeps us from loving people the way we ought to.

In fact, I believe that fear is the motivation for much of what we do in life, or what we don’t do. I’ve heard that doctors have identified over 700 different kinds of phobias or fears. For example, there is acrophobia, the fear of heights. Claustrophobia, the fear of closed-in spaces. Ergophobia: fear of work. Demophobia: fear of crowds. Gamophobia: fear of marriage.

Most of us, though, struggle with fears of a different kind – we’re afraid of failure, afraid of rejection, afraid of what people think about us, afraid of going broke, afraid of getting cancer, afraid of getting older, afraid of losing our health. According to most studies, people’s number one fear is the fear of public speaking. Our number two fear is a fear of death.

Which led one comedian to make the observation, “That means that at a funeral, most of us would rather be the person lying in the casket than the person giving the eulogy!”

But, we live in fear. And I understand that not all fear is bad. There is a fear that is necessary for our survival. God has built into each of us an instinctive alarm system which is designed to protect us from harm. There are normal fears which are necessary for our protection, and for the preservation of life.

Fear of sickness will cause some people to practice good health habits. Fear of rattlesnakes or other dangerous animals will cause you to leave them alone. Fear may cause drivers to drive cautiously on a snow-covered highway. And we teach our children to be afraid of some things. We warn them about playing in traffic, or touching hot stoves, or messing with sharp knives. So, there are proper kinds of fear.

But there are also some fears that take away our peace of mind, that fill our lives with a sense of dread, and sometimes fear can absolutely paralyze us. And so, we take great comfort in what David said in Psalm 34:4, “I sought the Lord, and he answered me, and delivered me from all my fears.”

In fact, one of the most frequent commands in all the Bible is this — “Fear not.” “Do not be afraid.”

When Abraham feared his enemies, God said, “Fear not, Abram, I am your shield.” (Genesis 15:1).

When Hagar was afraid because she thought she and her son were going to die, God came to her and said, “Fear not.” (Genesis 21:17).

When Jacob was afraid to go down to Egypt, God said, “Do not be afraid.” (Genesis 46:3).

When Joshua took over the leadership of Israel, God said, “Do not be frightened, and do not be dismayed, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go.” (Joshua 1:9)

God said to Israel in Isaiah 41:10, “Fear not, for I am with you; be not dismayed, for I am your God; I will strengthen you, I will help you, I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.”

Think about how many times Jesus told his disciples not to be afraid. When he calmed the storm, he said, “Why are you afraid?” (Matthew 8:26). When he was walking on water, he said, “It is I. Do not be afraid.” (Matthew 14:27). When Jesus helped the apostles to catch so many fish they broke their nets, and Peter fell down at Jesus’ feet. Jesus said, “Do not be afraid.” (Luke 5:10). To the women who saw him after his resurrection, Jesus said, “Do not be afraid.” (Matthew 28:10).

Over and over and over, God says, “Don’t be afraid.” But, you may be thinking to yourself, “What does any of this have to do with love?” And I think it has a lot to do with love, because so much of what we do in life (or what we don’t do) is driven by fear.

Remember the parable of the talents that Jesus told in Matthew 25? There was this guy who took a journey, and while he was gone, he entrusted his three servants with some of his money. He gave one of them five talents, he gave the second one two talents and he gave the third servant one talent.

And then, when he came back from his trip, he asked his servants what they did with his money. And the first two servants told him that they had used his money to make even more money. But the third servant took his talent and buried it. And do you remember the reason he gave for doing that? He said to his master, “I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground.” (Matthew 25:25).

“I was afraid. I was afraid of failing. I was afraid of losing the money you gave me. I was afraid that I would mess up and that you would be mad at me. I was afraid, and so I did nothing.”

And that’s what fear does. Fear paralyzes us. Fear makes us afraid to take a chance. And so, instead, we choose to do nothing. But it is impossible to love someone while we are doing nothing, because love requires that we do something. “Let’s not merely say that we love each other; let us show the truth by our actions.” (I John 3:18, NLT).

William Coffin once said, “The opposite of love is not hate but fear.” And I think he was right. Think about the parable of the Good Samaritan. You know the story. There was a man who was traveling on a mountainous road from Jerusalem to Jericho when he was ambushed by robbers who beat him up and stole everything he had. And then there were three men who came by – the priest and the Levite, who passed by on the other side of the road, and the Samaritan who stopped and helped the man and carried him to an inn and said, “Whatever it costs to take care of him, I’ll repay it.” (which, by the way, as an extravagant love).

Now, Jesus doesn’t tell us why the priest and the Levite passed by on the other side of the road and refused to stop to help the man, but he doesn’t have to tell us because we know. We know that they didn’t stop because they were afraid. Afraid that the robbers might still be around. Or afraid that stopping would have made them late for their responsibilities in the temple. Or afraid that the man might die and defile them. It wasn’t that they hated this man who had been robbed. They didn’t hate him. They weren’t the ones who beat him up. But “the opposite of love is not hate but fear.” It was fear that motivated them to do nothing. And when you do nothing, you’re not showing love.

The same thing is true in our lives. I think sometimes we take great pride in the fact that we don’t hate anybody. We don’t beat people up, we don’t call people names, we don’t do anything to hurt people and we assume that means that we love everyone. But, we’re not really loving anyone unless we’re doing something, and often, just like the priest and the Levite, the thing that keeps us from showing love is fear.

Now, we’re not afraid of the same things they were, but we’re still afraid. We’re afraid of loving someone and not being loved in return. We’re afraid of putting ourselves out there and giving and giving and giving, but the person we love may not respond to our love. In fact, he or she may not even acknowledge that we have done anything for them. And so, we’re afraid that all of our efforts will be in vain. We’re afraid that we will have wasted our time. We’re afraid that we will have loved and gotten nothing in return. We’re afraid, so we do nothing. Because we figure that if we don’t do anything, then we can’t be hurt. But, if we don’t do anything, we also can’t love.

And so, God wants us to love, but a lot of us have this fear of what God wants us to do, because I believe that some of us see God in the same way that we see that annoying person who always wants something from us. I don’t know if any of you have somebody like this in your life, but sometimes there are those people, whenever they call you, you know they’re going to want something, so you just let that call go straight through to voice mail.

And sometimes, I think some of us treat God the same way. We want to be close enough to God to get the good stuff. I want the promise of heaven, and I want God’s blessings in my life, but I don’t want to be so surrendered to God that he has total access to every area of my life, because if I completely surrender everything to Him … I mean, he might make me totally re-work my schedule. He might make me give up something I enjoy. He might make me spend lots of time trying to love someone who is never going to appreciate it.

Because we have this fear — What if I give my life over to God, and then life doesn’t go the way I want it to go? And that fear can overwhelm us and it can paralyze us, and it can lead us to do absolutely nothing.

A lot of people would say that fear is the absence of faith. But I would argue that fear is actually faith. It’s just faith in the wrong things. Fear is placing your faith in the “what ifs” –What if the economy falls apart? What if I lose my job? What if someone I love gets cancer? What if I never get married? Or what if I marry a jerk? And the fears just go on and on – What if …? What if …? What if …? Fear is placing our faith in the worst-case scenario.

But, “perfect love casts out fear”, which is to say that fear and love can’t exist in our lives at the same time. If we truly love, then we will serve others without worrying about the “what ifs”. And the opposite is also true. If we allow fear to take over our lives, if we are constantly worrying about the “what ifs”, then we will never be able to love others the way that God has called us to love. In fact, fear will keep us from doing anything that God has called us to do.

I want to explore that thought a little bit by looking at a story in the gospel of Luke about an angel who appeared to a teenage girl named Mary. And as we look at Mary’s story, I want us to ask ourselves the question — why is it that we are so often afraid of doing what God wants us to do? And I think there are a lot of possible answers to that question, but I want to give you one answer this morning, based on this story.

God’s interruptions are often inconvenient. When God interrupts us and lets us know that he has something he wants us to do, those interruptions are often very inconvenient.

We’re going to see this in the story of Mary in Luke chapter 1. I’ll begin reading in verse 26. “In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a city of Galilee named Nazareth, to a virgin betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. And the virgin’s name was Mary.” (Luke 1:26-27)

And so, this angel appears to Mary. Now, I think, sometimes, when people think of angels, they tend to imagine these fat, bald, naked, baby angels, sitting on a cloud, playing a harp.

But that’s not what angels in scripture look like. These are fierce, war-like creatures. They’re able to strike down an entire nation at God’s command. Every time in scripture we find someone who encounters an angel, they are afraid and very often they are driven to their knees.

So this angel, Gabriel, came to Mary and he said, “Greetings, O favored one, the Lord is with you!” (Luke 1:28). This angel is extremely kind and cordial. This is a very pleasant greeting. And you would think that Mary would have been excited, “Oh, man, I’ve always wanted to see an angel.” But no, she starts freaking out.

“She was greatly troubled at the saying…” (the New Living Translation says she was “confused and disturbed”). “…and [Mary] tried to discern what sort of greeting this might be.” (Luke 1:28). Mary wants to know, “What is the world is going on here?”

Think for a moment about what’s happening in her life. Mary is engaged to be married to Joseph. We don’t know for sure how old Mary was. Chances are, she was probably 14, 15, maybe 16 years old, because girls in that culture tended to get married at an early age.

And she was probably all excited about her upcoming marriage to Joseph, like any young bride-to-be would be today. You know how girls are, buying bridal magazines, searching on Pinterest, trying to find all the creative ideas to make her wedding day that special, unforgettable moment. She practices signing her name with her husband’s new last name. Or she’s picking out names for her future children. But suddenly, this angel interrupts all of Mary’s plans, which turns out to be incredibly inconvenient to the way Mary had her future mapped out.

But one of the things we find in Scripture is that what we call “interruptions,” God often sees as invitations. Those times that we feel like God is interrupting us, he’s actually inviting us to join him for something higher, something better.

Think about Moses. His normal day of tending sheep was interrupted with a burning bush, and God invited Moses to become the deliverer of God’s people. In the New Testament, Saul was on a mission to kill Christians, and God interrupted his routine with a light from heaven, and invited Saul to become the author of much of the New Testament, and an apostle to anyone who would listen to him talk about the grace of Jesus Christ. God often interrupts our plans with an invitation to do something better.

But I believe a lot of times we ignore God’s invitations, because we view them as “interruptions” to our lives when God really wants to invite us to join him to do something new and different in our lives. There are times when God brings people into our lives and he asks us to love them, but we view it merely as an interruption to our schedule.

Maybe there’s somebody who’s in the hospital, and you know you really need to go see them, but you’re thinking, I really don’t have time for this. I’ve got so many things that I need to get done. You feel like it’s an interruption, but then you decide to go and make the visit, and you realize that this was an invitation for God to use you to minister to someone who really needed your love.

Or maybe there’s someone who’s sick who could use a meal. Or someone who needs a ride. Or someone who’s sitting at home lonely who could use a phone call. Or someone who could use help taking care of their kids. And yes, you’ve got a hundred things that you need to get done, and you really don’t need the interruption. And the easiest thing in the world to do would be to do nothing at all. But if we don’t do anything, then we can’t love, because love always involves some action.

And so, there are times when God interrupts us when he calls us to express our love for others. But we need to see those moments not as interruptions, but as invitations to live out our faith, invitations to share with God in showing love.

So, we’ve got this angel of the Lord, Gabriel, who appears to this girl, Mary, who probably has her life all planned out, and he says, “I’ve got something different in mind for you.” In verse 30, the angel says, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God.” (Luke 1:30), and then he goes on to tell her that she will give birth to Jesus, the Son of God.

When you think about it, Mary had good reason to be afraid. She could imagine all sorts of “what ifs”. What if Joseph decided to divorce her, how would she raise a child on her own? What if her family disowned her? Or what if Joseph decided to accuse her of adultery and have her stoned to death? While her mind is swirling with all sorts of possible scenarios, God says, “Don’t be afraid.” Because he knows that fear will keep us from doing what we ought to do.

In Hebrews 2, the Hebrew writers talks about one of the greatest fears we have, the fear of death, but he describes it like this – he said that Jesus came to “deliver those who through fear of death were all their lifetime subject to bondage.” (Hebrews 2:15, NKJV). Fear will make us a slave. Fear will hold us captive. It sucks the joy right out of living. And fear can absolutely paralyze us. It can make us unwilling to step out and take a chance.

Bill Hybels writes in his book Simplify It, “History is filled with men and women who said ‘no’ to this kind of fear and changed the world, but imagine if they’d given into the paralyzing effects of fear on their lives. Imagine the Apostle Paul fearing resistance or rejection, choosing to stay home rather than embarking on the missionary journeys that took the message of Christ throughout the known world. Imagine Martin Luther King Jr. giving speeches filled with gentle hints about the evils of segregation because he feared pushing too hard. Imagine Rosa Parks… submitting to the bus driver’s command to give up her seat to a white person. Imagine Nelson Mandela looking the other way when he witnessed and experienced Apartheid in South Africa because he didn’t want make a fuss. . .

“And imagine yourself, fully aware of the mission and vision God has placed in your heart to advance His kingdom in this world, yet held hostage to fears, irrational worries, phobias about failure, harm, and rejection. If you don’t fulfill the mission God assigned to you, who will?”

In 2 Timothy 1:7 (NKJV), Paul wrote, “For God has not given us a spirit of fear but of power and love and of a sound mind.” God has not given us a spirit of fear, but a spirit of love.

It’s interesting when you read the book of I John, you see that it was a letter that was written to a church that was going through a crisis. There was heresy in this church. There was oppression and division. When you think about how stressed and frightened those Christians must have been, Will Willimon points out, it is all the more impressive that John did not write to them and say, “Be on guard!” or “Defend yourselves!” He simply said to “Love. Love one another the way that God loves you.”

Because the proper response to oppression and division is not to strike back, not even to protect yourself, but to love all the more. Jesus commanded us to love not just those who agree with us. We are commanded to love everyone. Which may not be the answer we’d like to hear, but it’s the only answer Jesus has.

And that be a scary thing. To which God says, “Fear not. Don’t be afraid.” Because fear will lead you to do nothing, like it did the priest and the Levite in Luke 10. But it’s impossible to love someone while you’re doing nothing. Perfect love will cast out fear.

So, this morning, I want to know, What is the fear in your life that keeps you from loving others the way you should? A fear of rejection? A fear of wasting your time? A fear of being inconvenienced? Whatever the fear is that paralyzes you, may you hear God speak into your life and say, “Don’t be afraid. Don’t let your fear keep you from loving others the way I want you to.”

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